How to Plan a Hymn Festival

No other form of expression can so richly translate the depth and breadth of authentic religious experience like a well-conceived song of praise.
— Juan Vidal

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It’s true, isn’t it?

A hymn or song of praise reminds us of who God is and what he has promised us. It fuels our faith - a foundation we can stand upon throughout our lives. It weaves our lives together as believers and connects us with the church’s history and the cloud of witnesses who have gone before us.

This is a powerful thing.

A hymn festival is a special service focused on the hymns and songs of our faith. These might include old favorites and newly-composed hymns, traditional, contemporary, and everything in between. The nature of your hymn festival will depend a lot on your congregation and what music they hold dear.

Here are a few helpful steps for planning your own hymn festival:

Step 1 | Prepare

Create a ballot.

This is simply a way to collect votes for which hymns are favorites among your congregation.

Depending on the nature of your hymn festival and the size of your congregation, you could leave it open-ended, giving people an opportunity to list their top 10 hymns, or you could create a list in advance of the top 40-50 hymns you sing as a congregation and ask people to rank or check their favorites.

One note: I would ask people to vote for however many hymns you plan to include in the festival. That way, the voting process is equal for all who choose to participate (e.g. one person can’t vote for five hymns while another votes for 20).

Build excitement.

Write a short note about the upcoming hymn festival to include on your church’s website and in the newsletter and bulletin. Once people are aware of what you’re planning, send the ballot out electronically and/or include it in the bulletin. Be sure to also share it with your choir members and staff. Ask people to return their ballots to the church office (or your church mailbox) by a certain date.

Tally votes.

Once the voting period is up, collect the ballots and begin tallying the votes. Rank hymns from most to least votes and choose the top 10-12, or however many you’ve decided to include in your festival. Make a big deal of posting the top picks in the choir room or on the music bulletin board for all to see.

Step 2 | Plan

Choose a structure.

Next, you’ll need to figure out a structure for your hymn festival.

Will it follow your basic pattern of worship?
Will it be more of a “lessons and carols” format?
Will it be more like a sacred concert, to be held on a Sunday afternoon?
Will you join with other area churches for an ecumenical hymn festival?

Select a date (and time, if outside of your regular Sunday morning worship).

Create a service outline.

Once you have an overlying structure in place, you can begin figuring out how to incorporate the hymns you’ve chosen. Divide your hymn selections into categories and choose specific verses that are the best fit (if needed):

You might also choose to use an overarching theme, such as:

  • Basic pattern of liturgy and worship (see more about that here)

  • Expressions of praise (sing, dance, play, pray, move, etc.)

  • Apostles’ Creed (line by line)

  • The Lord’s Prayer (line by line)

  • Psalm 100 or 150 (verse by verse)

I’ve come to see hymns as the language of prayer, and as a way of connecting with those that have come before me.
— Juan Vidal

Here are a few bulletin templates and outlines to give you some ideas:

Celebrating the Mystery: A Hymn Festival on Holy Communion
Apostles Creed Hymn Festival
Using hymns and the Heidelberg Catechism to reflect on the Lord’s Prayer
Singing the Whole Story Template (see specific examples here and here)
How Can I Keep From Singing? A Hymn Festival
A Festival of Hymns

Add variety.

There are a few ways to do this:

  • Choose certain hymns for the congregation to sing and some for the choir to sing

  • Explore options for creative hymn-playing

  • Search for instrumental hymn arrangements for solo, duet, trio, or ensemble (here’s a helpful list to get you started)

  • Use certain hymn texts as spoken liturgy: call to worship, prayer, benediction, etc.

Write narration.

A simple narrative will help tie everything together. Use narration to weave the hymns you’ve chosen into a coherent service or program. Briefly introduce each section of the hymn festival (using the thematic structure you came up with earlier) and, where helpful, provide a little background or historic insight into some of the hymns.

Step 3 | Present

Include texts.

The texts of the hymns are so important - this is where the story of our faith is told. Consider ways to include the texts for any hymns the congregation won’t be singing (choral anthems, instrumental music) - either projecting the text on a screen or printing it in the bulletin so people can follow along as they listen.

P.S. This activity is covered by your church’s CCLI license, for songs included in their database. For other copyright works, you must get permission from the copyright holder before publishing or projecting.

Related post: Singing Our Faith: The Power of Musical Theology

Use art or other visuals.

Bring the hymn texts to life with art and other visuals. Use banners, ribbon streamers, projection, drama, bulletin cover artwork, dance, etc. to highlight specific hymns and verses and make the festival as a whole more meaningful.

Related post: Integrating Visual Arts in Worship

Get as many people involved as you can.

A hymn festival is a wonderful way to engage members of your congregation of all ages. Consider inviting not only the musicians of your church, but also poets and writers, people with good narrating voices, visual artists, actors/actresses, dancers, etc. Give as many people as possible a way to participate in meaningful ways.

Have you ever planned a hymn festival? What did it look like?

Other helpful resources:
How to Plan a Hymn Festival
Hymn Festival: Great Hymn Writers